Gender Equity – Including Young Men and Boys | 12th Dr. Lalita Iyer Memorial Lecture

Apr 13, 2019


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s speech, “Gender Equity – Including Young Men and Boys” at the 12th Dr. Lalita Iyer Memorial Lecture at IIM, Ahmedabad on April 13, 2019 at IIM, Ahmedabad.

When Nandan and I became wealthy, the responsibility of that wealth sat heavy on our shoulders, but the duty to give it away became something that we realised was not only important, but joyful. Over my 25 years working in the non-profit sector, I’ve been active in issues around education, micro-finance, ecology, arts and culture, independent media, governance, and water equity. This has given me a window into the work of grassroots organizations around the country, working in especially hard geographies and social situations. Through Nandan, I’ve also had an inside seat to corporate culture, and thanks to the Aadhaar experience, a small peek into how the government functions. It is this Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar continuum that I was able to witness, that gives me a lot of deep perspective. It’s from that perspective that I want to tackle the subject of gender equity, especially relating to the young men and boys of this country.

Snapshots of Reality

There are a few images and interactions with young men and boys that have stayed in my mind. One was in Ramanagara, Karnataka, when I saw a young boy crying in a public space, and stopped to ask him what had happened. He was with his sister and he was crying because he had done very well in his 10th standard examination, wanted to study further but the same morning, his father had informed him that he had got him a job in the local STC and that he would have to join the government. There was no question of his studying further.

Another was when our car was stopped on a busy highway by a group of fairly young men wielding lathis. They were stopping traffic to protest against a local accident but their faces were flushed with excitement and a sense of raw power. The youngest among them could not have been more than 10 or 11 years old. The last was the scene of an employment queue, where dozens of young men were waiting, praying for jobs. These were jobs like security guards, sales and service agents, or others that would barely offer subsistence wages. From their eyes, I could see equal parts of hope and despair. These snapshots assemble like a gallery for me, portraying the reality faced by 200 million young men in this country, between the ages of 13 -25, who lack opportunity, employment, and dignity.

This is why I started working towards gender equity, specifically by working with young men and boys. In the past 40 years, India has made great strides to reduce the stark gender inequalities, in terms of legal rights, economic opportunities, personal empowerment, etc. We now have specific laws to protect women and help them to advance, and have created wonderful institutions like the powerful self-help groups that 70 million women are participating in, that enable them to have access to credit, various forms of state support, and more. Most young girls and young teenagers are in school, and most have access to health services. We have included, by quota, women in local government. India has the unique pride of having more than one million women serve as elected representatives, especially across local government. We have also made serious progress in terms of maternal child health.
However, we still have a long way to go. Our newspapers report atrocities almost daily, where women are being violated and abused in shocking ways. It makes me wonder whether we are missing something here. While we work towards empowering women, which is crucial, are we actually ignoring the other half of the problem? Perhaps we need to pay more attention to the 200 million young men in this country.

Expectations, Insecurities, and Violence

As a society we force so many ideas on men – they have to be strong, bread-winners, successful, protect and bring honour to their family, and uphold the rights of women. But millions of young men simply cannot live up to these expectations. We see this even on a global scale, with ILO calling the young men of today a scarred generation. Too many of them are under-educated, underemployed and in fact, unemployable because they lack the new skills valued by the current economy, while traditional livelihoods like farming have lost their appeal.

Their expectations from women, especially, no longer coincide with what liberated women want or need. With no outlets to express themselves and perhaps no examples of how to be sensitive towards women, it’s easier to be in a gang, eve teasing women on the street, than approach them earnestly. The gender skew in this country, with 20 million missing women from female foeticide, actively hampers the life of young men. Finally, we constantly re-enforce the cultural separation of spheres between men and women. On all fronts, young men find their aspirations rising dramatically, but cannot seem to be able to realize their dreams. In her book, “Dreamers,” Snigdha Poonam profiles some of these young people and their aspirations and frustrations, and we see that what’s more difficult for men is that they watch their sisters, wives, or girlfriends move ahead while they are left behind.

The current reality is that too many young men are afraid and extremely insecure. They feel like they have no control over their future, but are not able to cry or share their fears. They lack male role models or people to talk to. Even within their peer groups, they can only re-enforce the archetypal macho image and pretend that everything is fine. We know what happens when there are millions of young people who feel this way, in any nation or society. It means that these young and restless men can turn inwards or turn outwards possibly in violence. Michael Reichert, the author of “How To Raise A Boy,” says there are three types of male violence – violence against women, violence against other men, and violence against themselves, and these three are all deeply interwoven.

India is a country with 600 million, half its population, under the age of 25. There are 230 million young men between the ages of 18-30. Some surveys show that 50% of Indian males think it’s alright or excusable to beat a woman who is disobedient. That means 115 million young men are at risk of being subject to norms that dictate violence against women. Does this explain some of the new atrocities that we hear about, or tell us why we are seeing the rise of male vigilantism? Perhaps we can’t say this for sure, but I do know that if we want an equitable country, we need to pay more attention to these young men.

They deserve to be listened to and cared for, to be educated and empowered as human beings. They deserve to fulfil their own potential, not just to support their families but for themselves. Boys need opportunities to express themselves and realise their identities as human beings first, rather than just as husbands, fathers, or sons. Yet, we don’t seem to focus enough on this demographic, and gender equity will never fully be realised until we do. For example, our legal framework treats one gender differently than the other, and since laws are a tool that reflects power structures, this becomes a real barrier towards gender equity and promotes a limited norm of male identity. In the recently struck down section 497 of the IPC, adultery was criminalised only for men. The corollary was that it treated women as property and that men could file criminal complaints against other men.

While things are in the process of changing, I feel that not enough of us are agitated about these issues. Statistics show that men are incarcerated far more than women, and men under 30 more than older men. We need to be careful about over-criminalizing young people, because there is enough data to show that it makes for repeat offenders and vicious cycles set in. There is very little public policy directed at young males, and both the state and civil society lags behind on this. When I was trying to start a portfolio on philanthropy, I found almost no programs working at any scale with this cohort. In fact, I found only six or seven organizations that I have begun to support like Equal Community Foundation, Seguim, CORO, Swayan, and Pradan.

These are but tiny little specks in the ocean. When Equal Community Foundation went to West Bengal to look at expanding their work, they spoke to 100 organizations. None had any gender-specific programs for boys, though they had many for girls. The philanthropy community also needs to step up in this regard. Even the biggest European agencies are giving only 5% of their budgets to this issue, because even though people understand the problem, they don’t know what to do and where to invest. So there’s a huge gap here, and young men are the ones losing out on resources and opportunities to better themselves.

Working Towards True Equity Through Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar

I think we now need to ask ourselves this – as we continue to work for women’s empowerment, can we also creatively face this challenge of young men’s empowerment? Can we innovate safe, shared spaces so that boys can talk to each other without ridicule and fear? Can we imagine social structures where young men can organize around financial and other needs? Can we make time for boys to learn about arts, sports, painting, music, and encourage them to pursue things that help them grow as human beings? One of the major issues with young men who are unemployed is the amount of idle time they have. This can be easily manipulated by political parties or religious organisations to encourage identity-based groupings and vigilantism, which is not good for them or society at large. We know now that people are not born with pre-formed repertoires of aggressive behaviour. These behaviours must be learnt, and the problem begins with how we socialise boys right from the day they are born or perhaps even before that.

Therefore it is important for us to question this idea of masculinity, for the sake of men and women. When empowered women enter into disempowered situations, they face a real backlash, because their new freedoms are actively challenged. In those cases, they have two choices – either they can rebel and suffer the cost of that rebellion, or they can give in which means they are moving backwards again. So empowered women need empowered men. We need to ensure that men are happy, healthy, and supportive partners to women who are also healthy, educated, and free to pursue their dreams. This is not a zero sum game because we need to work with men and women simultaneously. Change like this happens slowly in society, but we have to start somewhere, and the most effective method would be a combination of efforts from the Samaaj, Bazaar and Sarkaar.
When it comes to Sarkaar, we need policy changes, public financing of affordable shelter, better transport, identity-based access to finance, better wages, skill training, and more relevant learn-ability education. We need better facilities for sports, music, and every other life-enhancing practice, and we need better laws in place. When it comes to Bazaar, in the workplace, factories, and offices, there needs to be much more mentoring and creation of spaces to discuss aggressive competition and its impact. We’re seeing the corporate world changing itself, with companies doing work to advance society as well as turn profits. This is important, because we’re talking about equity and sustainability, not just “Quarter Se Quarter Tak” kind of profits. So this is a new opportunity to draw young professionals, especially men, away from the competitive, aggressive, masculine mentality that has occupied the stage of global capitalism. Therefore the corporate sector has a really important role to play in reimagining and reinventing spaces for the young men that it employs.

The Samaaj sector, of course, has a big role as well. Young men need safe, shared platforms where they can explore sensitive questions about everything from their politics, their patriarchal identities, their sexuality, and whether they feel trapped in them. They need good role models and structured activities, some empathy and mentoring. They need to build up their self-esteem, and become less afraid and insecure. This change starts with small steps, with each and every one of us. We need to open up these conversations in our own homes, at the dinner table or when families spend time together. We need to talk and listen to our young boys to make sure they don’t feel so alone and alienated. We may fail at first, but we can open up our minds and hearts and the power of intent will show through.

This is a creative challenge for all of us, and it’s also an urgent one, to help these young people live their lives with dignity. I’ve met so many young men who want to get into the social sector or get into the corporate sector to change the way capitalism works, and I feel so fortunate to meet people with such strong ideals. This generation is one that is on the move. Tens of millions of these young boys are moving onwards and outwards from where they were born or where they were stuck, to try to make something more of themselves. But they need society’s help. Even if they’ve been brought up with certain traditional values, they are open to new norms, especially on gender issues, and like young people everywhere, they are experimenting. If we support them, we can make it happen sooner than we think, and the whole nation’s future depends on how we engage with them.

Forty years ago we couldn’t have even imagined the kind of freedom that today’s young women have in small towns across India. I believe we can uplift young men’s lives in the same way, and create a vision of a kinder society for all. Mahatma Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Non-violence as a political tool is only beginning. A country of angry young men need not to be our destiny. We could not have foreseen what happened with the freedom of women, and I believe we will be surprised by what we can do if we focus on true gender equity as a matter of national urgency. So let’s commit to a more humane, kind, and prosperous society where all our young men and women can be the best that they can be.



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